IRKSOME BUT COMPELLING
Greenberg, dir. Noah Baumbach (now playing)
Noah Baumbach makes films that feel like indies, but feelings can be deceiving. Like indies, Baumbach pictures offer naturalist situations, realist dialogue, plots that center around emotion or smaller daily drama (the restructuring of a life-long friendship, a doggy falling ill, wearing outmoded shoes), and a sharp intelligence that flatters the audience by appearing to forgo melodrama. But his films are not indies; they are vehicles for movie stars. And movie stars don’t show up in movies in which they (a) look bad or (b) aren’t permitted to parade their usual shtick.
Baumbach’s Margot At the Wedding failed to the degree it showcases both these hard truths. As regards (b), Jack Black periodically explodes the tone of the film with overdone, unfunny slapstick performed in the service of his brand, no matter what the context. Even worse is Nicole Kidman’s demonstration of (a). The entire film—the entire film!—was predicated on her character being narcissistic, self-obsessed, and conflicted about parenthood. Yet in the final scene she tosses aside all the tools of her organized life—phone, wallet, passport—and chases after the bus taking her teenage son away. There was no justification whatsoever for this change of character, and the only sane audience response was: “Never happen!” No justification in terms of character dynamics, but plenty in Hollywood power terms: Nicole Kidman will not play a woman who just stands there as her son disappears. One assumes this is why big stars show up in Baumbach movies: they get caressed with an indie-brainy gloss, but without the concomitant brand damage that appearing in a negative light might produce.
Ben Stiller, amazing as it is to consider, is a big star. His movies have earned over a billion dollars. In Greenberg he plays a narcissistic failure, a guy whose skin, in the immortal words of Julie Klausner, “is only thin in one direction.” Greenberg has returned to L.A. after a stint in a New York loony bin to sit his rich and successful brother’s enormo Hollywood Hills house while his bro takes the family on vacation to Vietnam. Thus does Greenberg’s nose get rubbed in the wreckage of his past, the inescapable material consequence of all his failure, and the dismal nature of his future prospects. Understandably, this makes him cranky. And he was already pretty damn cranky to begin with.
Tempering these quite real-seeming and moving quandaries are repeated slapstick tropes, all jarringly out of place. It’s impossible to tell if they stem from Stiller wanting things to be quote funnier unquote, which with comedians often means more obvious, or from Baumbach failing to believe in his own ideas and reverting to the sign-posting that is his worst habit. Foremost among these signposts is Stiller sitting down again and again to write sanctimonious, aggrieved letters to airlines, coffee shops, and the like. These moments present Greenberg as a card-carrying loonie and feel at odds with the tone of the rest of the film. They draw one in and shove one away. They incarnate the odd push-pull of the film, which is among the most compelling and irritating pictures imaginable.
Into this life of past-regretting, dog-sitting, and letter-writing comes Florence Marr, played by Greta Gerwig. Gerwig showcases the problematic duality of Greenberg, with Baumbach’s faux-indie approach, and with his desire to present himself as being in the Hollywood status game but not of it.
Greta Gerwig is a beautiful, soulful young woman with the unmistakable air of someone who has accomplished much and is on her own terms with the world. In the first moments of the film, revealed in long-take close-ups, she appears to be the star of the picture, and totally capable of carrying it.
But next thing we know we’re being told that Florence needs to “stand up for herself.” Florence is relentlessly depicted as socially clumsy, lacking in self-confidence, and wholly unaware of her astonishing loveliness/soulfulness/cool. This trope gets carried to its extreme when, as Greta sings into an open mic at a small club—again in ravishing movie-star close-up—her BFF says to Greenberg, as if this were some terrific scoop: “Isn’t she beautiful?” The line is meant to convey that Florence doesn’t regard herself as such, that Greenberg might not either, and that only her BFF has the insight to recognize Florence’s totally, blatantly obvious inner and outer loveliness.
The moment is irritating, self-serving, and false. It perfectly illuminates how irritating, self-serving, and false much of the film proves to be. Which is a shame, because when Baumbach lets the story be, it proves insightful and moving, with painfully well-observed vignettes that only underscore the pretense of Baumbach’s more manipulative set pieces.
Greta Gerwig is a glamourpuss, although admittedly a downtown/Brooklynesque glamourpuss and thus an unfamiliar type in Hollywood. Casting her as an unaware ugly duckling is a typical piece of Hollywood-think arrogance. Not that she isn’t amazing in the role—she is, and pulls off a couple of the most awkward, touching, and true sex scenes in movie history. The one wherein Greenberg launches himself at her, flings her down on her thrift-shop armchair, and shoves his face between her legs proves almost too human to bear. And demonstrates what Baumbach can do when he gets out of his own way.
But Gerwig’s performance, while stunning and star-making, perpetually screams: “Never happen!” The most egregious moment is when Florence, about to succumb to anesthesia, mumbles to Greenberg, “You like me so much more than you think you do.” Let’s recap: Greenberg is 12 years older, at least a head shorter, broke, mean-spirited as hell, just out of a nuthatch, a crap lover, and incapable of connection. Florence is young, perceptive, soulful, kind, and sheltering. Shouldn’t Greenberg be saying those very words to her? Maybe in an earlier draft, he did.
Baumbach and his wife, Greenberg producer and co-story creator Jennifer Jason Leigh, seem unaware of their own counterintuitive misogyny in suggesting that such worthy young women are so relentlessly self-undermining.
Accepting the true moments of the story, and they are many and arresting, means digesting a number of slick falsehoods as well: that Greenberg and Florence grow intimate because of her convenient medical emergency, that a sick dog—a sick dog, for crying out loud—generates both emotional tension and sympathy for Greenberg. Because much of the emotion seems earned and true, and since every moment is couched in a particularly Baumbachian hyper-naturalist realism, it takes a bit of time to realize how obvious his ploys can be. This makes watching the film immersing and thinking about it later really frustrating.
Much of Greenberg is based on expert close examination of social scenes, class differentials, L.A. modalities, and Hollywood behavior. It’s supposed to be subtext but often plays as foreground. In interviews, Baumbach and Leigh have long cast themselves as bemused insiders in the nuevo/arty Hollywood orbit, and their eye for home decoration, nuance of clothing, and how physical posture suggests power differential (a key L.A. social trope) is keen. Those tiny observations, all New Yorker short story-like, are at times enthralling and at times precious and unnecessary. And that’s the issue in a nutshell—when that intent dominates the story, Greenberg irritates. When that intent loses itself in narrative and character, Greenberg astonishes.
Greenberg’s explosive outbursts are frighteningly real. When he accuses anyone who cares about him of repeating a former abusive relationship, the heartbreak of his determination to remain alone becomes manifest. His attempts to reclaim a past that wants nothing to do with him are equally memorable and sad. Those moments resonate after the film is over, and serve as reminders of how merciless and insightful Baumbach can be. Greenberg receives a number of comeuppances, some deserved and some not. We feel the pain of every one.
Then out of nowhere he decides to fly to Australia at a moment’s notice. Again it seems that Baumbach ran out of ideas. In a wilder, more free-form and less realist comedy, such a wacky madcap action might feel justified. Here, every real-world objection springs to mind. This broke carpenter, this house-sitter, this struggling loonie is going to drive to an airport and buy a same-day ticket? To Australia? All together now: Never happen!
Jennifer Jason Leigh co-wrote and co-directed The Anniversary Party with Alan Cumming. Like Greenberg, its drama depends on tiny observed nuances and alt-Hollywood inside jokes, like the overstated understatement of somebody’s perfect Mid-century Modern house or Gwyneth Paltrow playing a young, dumb starlet on Ecstasy. That film’s drama plays as more sincere, with less directorial puppeteering, than Greenberg. And in both films, what’s being dissected to the nth friggin’ degree is an observational snobbery that must be fully bought into to enjoy. If L.A. means less to you than it does to Bambauch/Leigh, you may find that only Greenberg’s background is convincing. The foreground, not so much.